At some point as a young man, my Dad worked at a bank. He had a formal understanding of finance—despite his schooling being interrupted by the Sino–Japanese War and then by the communist revolution, he managed to get himself a qualification in economics, and had some time working for a bank.
I was taught all about promissory notes, bills of exchange, cheques, honourable accounts, balance of payments and foreign exchange as a teenager. He impressed on me why certain things were sacrosanct in banking, the correct way to draw a cheque, and why the Cheques Act 1993 in this country was a blight on how bills of exchange were supposed to work. Essentially, I grew up with what might have been a 1950s or 1960s idea of what banking is, things that were still mostly observed by New Zealand banks into the 1980s and the 1990s.
Today [Wednesday, July 29] I opened a new business account at TSB, with whom I had banked personally since 2007, as had Jack Yan & Associates. I will be closing the account at Westpac, because it’s clear to me that they don’t believe in the fair dinkum banking values that my father taught me. By the time you read this, the closure should be a fait accompli, as I don’t wish them to put up more obstacles than they have already.
Westpac held my mortgage on the old house, of which I had paid off 88 per cent before I sold it. I began my banking relationship with them in 2006, for reasons I won’t go into here. My parents had banked ‘on the Wales’ when they were new immigrants in 1976, and stayed with them for some time.
Very early on, I noticed how confusing their statements were. You can contrast theirs to everyone else’s in Aotearoa, and believe me, I know: I’ve banked with a lot of people. Trust Bank, Countrywide, POSB, National, ANZ—all the usual suspects that a Kiwi growing up in the 1970s through to the 1990s will have encountered. No, in itself that’s not a reason to leave a bank, but they seem to exist in their own bubble.
I got caught out once or twice on not getting a mortgage payment sorted because of the confusing statements. And there was one time that Westpac decided to be relentless about it, by setting a bot on me. The bot would call at various hours hounding me to sort this out, with a pre-recorded message, and if you hung up, it would call again. And again. And again. Never mind that you haven’t had a chance to enquire with the bank as to what was going on. This amounted to a breach of the Telecommunications Act, and I put this to them before the activity ceased. And no, in itself that’s not a reason to leave a bank.
You are stuck with the buggers, and over the years I’d make the payments. As many of you know, some of our companies’ income comes from abroad, which I always regarded to be a good thing, since it helps with foreign exchange and this country’s balance of payments. Twice, I think, I needed a top-up because a client was slow to pay, and I would clear that within 30 days. As interest rates changed (the mortgage was floating), the bank would, from time to time, send a letter saying I could reduce my mortgage payments and still keep to the payment schedule, and in 2010 I took them up on it.
As some of you know, in 2015 Dad was diagnosed formally with Alzheimer’s disease and eventually I became his full-time carer as his condition worsened, with predictable results on my work. But hey, Westpac has all these posters around their branches with Dementia New Zealand logos telling us how great they are, and how they can help. Since Dementia New Zealand won’t acknowledge or respond to my complaint about this (Dementia Wellington, on the other hand, had), let me publicly say that this is bollocks. My experience tells me that it appears to be a feel-good exercise that counts for nowt for a bunch of arrogant twats in Australia.
My branch was great. They were decent, hard-working and friendly people, and many of them stayed for years—always a good sign. But outside of the branch is where you’ll find the rot.
In 2019, my partner and I found a home we wanted to purchase. After Dad went into a home in July 2018 I had begun renovating the old place anyway. The new house was a step up, and by the time we factored in all the costs, we would need to borrow under 20 per cent of the total purchase price.
Westpac wanted to see the balance sheets, as was their right to, and I’ll say now that they weren’t rosy. Of course not, not when you’ve been a caregiver. However, by this point I had got back in the saddle, and I could show them contracts that we had secured.
Apparently this wasn’t good enough for that 20 per cent. The fact I had been a caregiver and had an account at a bank which had a Dementia New Zealand endorsement carried absolutely no weight.
The mortgage officer said that according to the balance sheet, I couldn’t even afford the mortgage. Turns out he didn’t know how to read a balance sheet and the ‘Mortgage repayments’ line therein. And no, in itself that’s not a reason to leave a bank.
Apparently, the fact my income was coming from abroad was a concern. Yet it was never a concern for Westpac in 13 years when I was paying the mortgage with that foreign income. Earning foreign exchange for your country and helping with its balance of payments are, seemingly for Westpac, a bad thing. I suppose it would be to greedy Australian bankers, who love to see a weakened New Zealand subservient to other nations. If you adopt this viewpoint when examining how Australian-owned publications here behaved (I’m looking at The Dominion Post from that era), then it actually all fits neatly, given their editorial bias. And no, in itself that’s not a reason to leave a bank.
I know some of you in banking will be going, ‘But there are the anti-money-laundering requirements,’ which I get, but what about the idea of an honourable account? Other than what I outlined above, I was a good customer, and every other bank will tell you the same: I kept honourable accounts. But maybe honour isn’t a thing for Westpac.
Never mind. We approached two mortgage experts who worked tirelessly for us, and whom I heartily endorse here. Lynne Russell, an old friend of mine, was the first I approached. And Stephanie Murray was referred to me by a good friend from school. Both ladies went to second-tier lenders, told us that the foreign income was the problem, and proceeded to get us the best deal possible. Stephanie won out because of the interest rate, and she noted that the lender, Avanti Finance, was quite happy because I had a good credit rating. But while most Kiwis were enjoying home loans at around the 4 per cent mark, ours was nearer 11 per cent (and this was the lower one). Stephanie, and later my own solicitor, noted that my problem was not unique, and they had clients who were also earning money from abroad who the banks shut out. This is a grand mistake in my book, because these are the very people we should be rewarding and encouraging. You’ve heard of export earners, right, banks? We usually talk about them in positive, glowing terms. Turn on the news. Get schooled.
We still had renovations to do. At least Westpac would give me a top-up to get that sorted, surely. After all, we had already engaged a builder and he needed money for materials.
Um, no. Westpac shut off that avenue completely. From memory they could give me a couple of grand, and that was it. This was despite my having a six-figure mortgage that I had whittled down to around a fifth, a relatively small five-figure sum. At all other times, it was fine, even when I enquired about purchasing a car. But not any more. And no, in itself that’s not a reason to leave a bank.
Harmoney came to the rescue there and we were approved within 24 hours. Interest rate: 14·55 per cent.
I had set up the direct debits with Avanti using my honourable (or so I thought) Westpac account.
Except Westpac had one more trick up its sleeve. They seemed intent on making sure we would never move, so, without notice, they doubled my mortgage payments. They kept going on about how I was falling behind. No one at the branch could explain why, not even one of their most senior staff. If I hadn’t caught one of the debits, I would have defaulted on an early payment to Harmoney. Fortunately, I spotted it in time, and pulled some money from a TSB account to plug the gap.
And no, in itself that’s not a reason to leave a bank.
But all together, they were reasons.
We sold the house, discharged that mortgage, and thanks to my very talented partner and her skills in money management and property investment, we managed to get our finances in order. I won’t elaborate on this since I regard this part as private, but let’s say Westpac should have had faith in us since we carried out what we proposed we do.
It was only when the Westpac mortgage was discharged that the bank apologized for doubling my mortgage payments and gave a reason for doing so.
Remember that letter in 2010 which said I could reduce my payments without affecting things? Turns out that affected things, and they wanted to grab what they could to make up for lost time. Not that they thought it was important to tell me any time between 2010 and 2019. They only played this at a customer’s most stressful point, and buying a house is one of the most stressful things you can do as an adult.
So much for me being such a massive risk to Westpac. We told them our game plan to get to where we are today, and we carried it out to the letter. Two well educated, well qualified and intelligent people. Yet we were viewed with suspicion from the first moment we said we wanted a new home. So how do they treat people with less education or with a shorter history? If they are the Dementia New Zealand-friendly bank how do they treat those who haven’t had to deal with dementia? The branch was awesome and did right by us but as they’re not the ones approving things, then I can only expect that others are treated far, far worse.
I felt they only apologized because they had thrown everything at us and realized we had a greater resolve.
This experience teaches me that if you’ve kept up a decent history with Westpac, earned foreign exchange, and helped with your country’s balance of payments, then they will shit on you. Since sharing parts of this story on Twitter, I’ve heard of similar unreasonable treatment by Westpac toward hard-working New Zealanders. The moment they learn you need them, you’re on their radar, and they will block every avenue you normally would have—avenues that you exercised literally just months before, like the top-up. Because why have a customer who is freed of their grasp? That’s just not good for business. Better to keep them impoverished and not let them move to a nicer home. Better to let them know who’s really in charge. And, ladies and gentlemen, that explains a great deal about why foreign ownership can be troublesome in so many quarters—and why I’m happy to take this account to TSB. Thanks to Kerry Gribben and Panith Ear at TSB’s Wellington branch for sorting me out and making it totally painless. And Kerry was a total pro in not slagging off a competitor, especially given where he once worked (he didn’t tell me, but he knew a lot about Westpac’s processes!).
I had to choose a New Zealand bank on principle. The Cooperative Bank was on the radar, and they were really friendly, though I thought their charges were a little high and TSB looked better capitalized on the figures I could find. However, my respect goes to Brian Batchelor at the Wellington branch for being thoroughly professional. It would have been nice to have gone there, since Medinge Group banks with Coop in the UK, and a mate of mine who did some contract work for them says that our Cooperative (a different and unrelated entity) are genuine about their promises to customers.
Kiwibank didn’t even reply to emails when we were trying to get a mortgage, and rejected all PDFs and ZIP files I sent their despite them saying their email systems could accept them. They just gave up all contact, so I figured they didn’t need the business. And I hear they don’t do foreign exchange anyway, which is just bizarre for a state-owned bank that should be encouraging foreign exchange in these economically tricky times. SBS had no nearby branches (technically, Blenheim isn’t that far but you can’t drive there without an amphibious car). Sometimes, you just go back to what you know.
Today (Friday), the day I am posting this. Westpac accounts shut (despite a massive queue at Lambton Quay). Really nice young chap behind the counter. Except I have 35 cheques on which I want the duty refunded. He didn’t know how to do that and wrote down the helpline number. I called that. Eighteen minutes later, the rep there didn’t know how to do that and referred it to my branch. I really need them to pay me back the NZ$1·75 on principle and then I will consider the matter closed.